Markelle Fultz is the Sixers’ biggest question mark this summer
Markelle Fultz will be one of the Philadelphia 76ers’ most important offseason projects.
The Philadelphia 76ers‘ postseason run ended on a sour note, with the Boston Celtics knocking them out in five hard-fought (and at times upsetting) games. They exposed plenty of weaknesses in the Sixers’ roster, but one stood out more than anything else.
They need another playmaker.
On a team led by two All-NBA caliber players, T.J. McConnell’s ability to probe the interior and create offense was the biggest turning point in the series. The Sixers, had McConnell remained glued to the bench, probably would’ve been swept. That’s telling.
Ben Simmons, for as special as he is with the ball in his hands, had his shortcomings on full display. His best moments in the series came off the ball, whether it be cutting to the rim or working for positioning in the post.
Joel Embiid is an elite post scorer, but that isn’t an efficient way to run the offense. If the Sixers’ only reliable halfcourt offense runs through Embiid, it’s hard to picture them clearing the next hurdle and becoming legitimate contenders.
They need a long-term solution on the perimeter — somebody other than Simmons who can create off the dribble and score at all three levels.
That’s what Markelle Fultz was supposed to be.
Last summer, the Sixers broke away from the rebuilding nature of years past, giving up assets in an attempt to upgrade their talent base. They traded away the third pick and a future first rounder to acquire the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, which they used on Fultz.
At the time, that decision seemed like a no-brainer. Fultz was the consensus No. 1 prospect, displaying a unique blend of body control, basketball I.Q. and scoring instincts that rarely manifest in a 19-year-old point guard.
Most — including myself — dubbed him the best guard prospect since Kyrie Irving, and he seemed to be more NBA-ready than your typical first-year lead guard. Even Fultz’s Summer League tape backed up that notion.
Then stuff hit the fan, and the Sixers’ prized rookie quickly devolved into an enigma. He forgot how to shoot and nobody knew why. Explanations eventually came, but to this day we still don’t have a clear understanding of how things went down and where Fultz’s jump shot stands.
In his exit interview Thursday afternoon, Fultz said his shoulder still isn’t 100 percent. Considering his inconsistent play toward the end of the regular season, that would make sense.
Now, with the offseason looming and Fultz’s skill set being so important to the Sixers’ success, his development will be a top priority. We can call into question the decision-making behind playing him with a hurt shoulder, but that isn’t too important at this point.
All that matters is Fultz re-learning his jumper before it becomes too late.
In his 10 games to end the regular season, Fultz did flash some of the potential that made him the top pick in June. His herky-jerky ball handling, crafty finishing and advanced court vision all allowed him to be relatively effective without spacing the floor.
Relatively effective isn’t what the Sixers need from Fultz, though, and his growing reluctance as a shooter is even more worrisome. At this point, T.J. McConnell still feels like the superior option behind (or next to) Simmons, which was especially true in the postseason.
Fultz has the athletic tools and raw talent needed to be a special player, but he isn’t close putting everything together yet. The proverbial glue that can help him piece together his game is an operable jump shot. It’s that simple.
It goes without saying that the Sixers will get Fultz in the lab early and often this summer. They’ll do everything in their power to improve his shoulder strength, iron out any issues with motor function, and make an attempt to get his release back to where it was in college.
At this point, though, it’s fair to question how likely the latter part is. I remain confident in Fultz’s ability to improve and contribute long term, but we don’t have any precedent for his shoulder issues.
If things clear up over the summer and his shooting woes dissolve, that wouldn’t be a complete shock. If opening day rolls around and he’s still playing within the paint, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise either. We’re at a point where his developmental track is a complete unknown; things can go in multiple different directions.
Nonetheless, talent and upside are still important. Fultz has both of those in spades, and the Sixers are still viewing things through the longest lens possible. The goal next season is to compete, but their roster is built to compete for a decade. The Sixers — and Fultz — still have plenty of time.
Things aren’t do-or-die yet, almost regardless of who joins this offseason. That notion might change if LeBron James comes walking down Broad Street, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.